We get Keillor’s take on Keillor, but who’s complaining?

By Steve Behrens

Keillor in red tie with actress on stage

“What I think of with rhubarb—it’s kind of a metaphor,” says rhubarb advocate Peggy Hanson. He backs away in awe at the realization. (Image from “Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes” on American Masters.)

The series title means something, says arts documentarian Peter Rosen. If your film runs under the American Masters umbrella, it’s about an artist worth honoring.His film, “Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes,” aired in the series last week [July 1, 2009].

But Rosen would have given Garrison Keillor an admiring portrait anyway. “I’ve always thought we have a Mark Twain among us,” he says.

With good access to Keillor, Rosen delivers a more detailed picture of Prairie Home Companion’s workings and the star’s personality than did the late Robert Altman’s earlier movie, which contrived to shoehorn a very successful real-life radio show into a plot about an unsuccessful one.

Variety critic Dennis Harvey commented: “Portrait captures the charm of A Prairie Home Companion and its creator considerably more than Robert Altman’s star-heavy 2006 feature of the same name.”

Rosen got Keillor to record some voiceover passages from his monologues and other writings. but rejected the form of a standard biographical documentary. He managed to do the profile without a single stiff, predictable sit-down interview with Keillor or people in his life — not even his high-school English teacher.

“Garrison isn’t the kind of person you can interview,” Rosen says. “He would come up with a snide remark or just not answer.”

When Keillor hints that his fiction is close to fact and that he trades in lies, Rosen takes him at his word. “No one would know what’s true or isn’t true about him,” he says.

Though the filmmaker says he had long regarded Keillor as enigmatic, he decided to leave that be. He didn’t send out the troops to round up old photos and archival clips. “Using those things, for me, would ruin the mystery of it.”

Keillor’s occasional mutterings still help shape the story as Rosen follows him around with a tiny Panasonic AGX100B “film look” high-def camera. (Joel Shapiro shoots most of the footage.)

The subject is good-natured but at least 90 percent business, moving steadily through his week overflowing with work. During the shooting in 2006 and 2007, starting just after Altman finished, Rosen says Keillor was devoting Monday and Tuesday to his latest book tour, finishing his weekly newspaper column by Wednesday and spending the rest of the week on the show, with a run-through on Friday night and the live broadcast Saturday.

Keillor calls it “a lovely sort of hyperproductive time” in his life.

He has only a few minutes left to hammer away on his laptop before airtime when Music Director Rich Dworsky consults him about a musical transition.

Keillor agrees on a bit of Latin music but adds a concise, confident restriction: No tune, just rhythm. Dworsky vanishes and Keillor returns to the keyboard. Rosen keeps the camera rolling. As he types, Keillor must be fretting whether he’s been Minnesota-nice enough.

“That’s great!” he mutters with his back to the camera. “An English major telling a pianist what to do.”

The film’s take on Keillor’s life history features his ambivalence toward New York (he predicts that he would have become “a retired alcoholic copy editor from the Daily News” if he had stayed there as a young writer). And Keillor makes it clear he has chosen a different life: commitment to his family, raising a daughter in the safety of St. Paul.

Keillor plays the theme as a gag during an outdoor show at the Rhubarb Festival in miniature Lanesboro, Minn. Peggy Hanson, one of the three local women who sing his “Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie” jingle also appears as a rustic sage, distaff division:

“What I think of with rhubarb — it’s kind of a metaphor,” she says. Keillor backs away in awe at the realization.

She continues: “’Cause I was an English major …”

He smiles and replies, “A metaphor?”

She goes on: “It’s a metaphor. I think it’s a metaphor for finding happiness in your own backyard.” The wiseacre part of the crowd goes “wooo” and applauds, as if she has just pulled five doves out from under her apron.

Keillor puts out an arm as if to say, “Five doves!”

Rosen says he knows that Keillor’s fans are curious about his two earlier marriages and zigzag career decisions, but the filmmaker chose to respect Keillor’s clear desire for privacy. “We kind of told Garrison at the outset if that wasn’t something he wanted to get into, we wouldn’t.”

He does show an extended scene of Keillor laboring at the laptop in a high-ceilinged old St. Paul house when his young daughter greets, hugs and hangs on him with obvious fondness. Keillor appears to love it but demonstrates the restraint he always attributes to Minnesotans.

Rosen says the Independent Television Service gave him the money to gather footage for the profile, enough for 12 days with Keillor and his company. Most of the rest of the budget came from Susan Lacy’s American Masters budget at WNET. Rosen aims to cover the remaining 20 percent of the cost with proceeds from sales of the DVD, which gives viewers 45 extra minutes of material.

Rosen is known for his arts documentaries. He just completed a five-week shoot on familiar ground, the biennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth.

He’s eager to edit the film, which ends with an engrossing performance by blind 21-year-old pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii from Japan, who ties with Haochen Zhang, an even younger player from China. Eight years ago, Rosen and his team also documented the memorable competition won in another rare tie by Olga Kern and  Stanislav Ioudenitch.

Rosen is also finishing a film on 80-year-old pianist Byron Janis, a Pittsburgher, to be presented on public TV by hometown station WQED, and he’s angling to do a portrait of the late painter and jazz saxophonist Larry Rivers.

EARLIER STORIES

Keillor v. Gov. Jesse Ventura, 1999.

Altman to direct PHC movie with above-average cast, 2004

PHC is one of several pubradio shows that have brought back live national remote broadcasts to radio, 2005.

RELATED LINKS

Tne Keillor profile on American Masters’ site.

The DVD of Rosen’s film is offered on the Prairie Home Companion website along with a CD of Robin and Linda Williams’ music and a book of 77 Love Sonnets by Keillor.

A Prairie Home Companion visited the Rhubarb Festival in June 2007.

In Lanesboro, Minn., Rosen screened the film, including scenes from the 2007 Rhubarb Festival during the 2008 festival.

Keillor’s guest, pictured on this page, appears to be local actress Peggy Hanson, who also appeared in the Rhubarb Sisters singing group and is interviewed in the kitchen about other merits of rhubarb.

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